Of the multiple performers I admired this past summer, four stick in my mind because of their multiplicity. Three of them were in multiple productions, and one brought a contrary pair of personalities together in a single one-man show. Coincidentally, perhaps, all four are members of Shakespeare & Company’s extended family of actors.
Playing through this weekend at S&Co is John Douglas Thompson in Satchmo at the Waldorf. The blisteringly powerful actor, known for his classical roles, takes on the giant talent and outsize personality of Louis Armstrong on the night of his very last gig in 1971. Many of Armstrong’s dressing-room musings on his life and career involve a perceived betrayal by his longtime manager and friend Joe Glaser, with whom he shares the stage in alternating first-person monologues.
Thompson’s spellbinding performance isn’t impersonation, though there’s a hint of Satchmo’s gravelly voice, but he endows each man—one a black son of New Orleans, the other a white, Jewish Chicagoan—with a distinctive tone, accent and compelling physical presence. He even adds a third line to this two-part fugue with a couple of cameos from an upstart trumpeter named Miles Davis.
Tod Randolph gave us two enthralling solo turns this summer, bringing to life very different women with a lot in common. Both of the real-life figures were writers, one a crusading journalist, the other a boundary-breaking novelist. Both wielded pens dipped in dry wit and both exploded society’s constricted expectations of women.
In Cassandra Speaks, at S&Co, Randolph was feisty, opinionated Dorothy Thompson, scourge of Nazis and political bullies in her influential syndicated column, a woman always “looking for a chance to strike a blow.” And she was Edith Wharton in The Inner House, performed at Wharton’s Berkshire “cottage,” The Mount—just as ambitious and opinionated, but a genteel daughter of the Gilded Age whose placid demeanor and steady gaze contained a steely inner resolve.
Corinna May lifted two rather unsuccessful productions this summer in the Berkshires. At S&Co, she was the only slightly less wicked of King Lear’s two faithless daughters. In Homestead Crossing on the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn stage, she played a contemporary wife chafing inside a humdrum midlife marriage. She brought her instinctive elegance to both roles, one haughty and harsh, the other cool and collected but pining for some excitement.
I saw Jonathan Epstein as three separate characters this summer, performances that delightfully validated his versatility. At S&Co he was a thoughtful, volatile, ironic (and oddly but somehow appropriately Russian) Kent, faithful follower of the mad Lear. And in repertory on the same stage, he was fall-over hilarious as Stephano in The Tempest, acting the tipsy butler like W.C. Fields playing Jeeves.
Before that double act, Epstein was a volcanic, mercurial Mark Rothko in TheaterWorks’ production of Red in Hartford. That two-hander was also in New Century Theatre’s season in Northampton, with Buzz Roddy in a comparatively underplayed but convincing performance as the brilliant, infuriating abstract expressionist—a particularly striking achievement, since Roddy was an emergency replacement for another actor.
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.